Football: Donnelly makes difference for Celtic

Kilmarnock 1 Celtic 2
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CELTIC weathered a Kilmarnock storm in driving wind and rain at Rugby Park last night to underline their title ambitions. This was hardly a pretty performance from Wim Jansen's side but it turned out to be a pretty useful result, leaving Celtic three points ahead of Rangers going into Sunday's Old Firm match at Ibrox. With Hearts drawing against Motherwell it added up to a satisfactory night's work.

Kilmarnock stretched Celtic to the limit at a ground where their title hopes had been dented last season, but the determination to succeed was evident as the sleeves on the Celtic jerseys were rolled up.

An early goal served to settle the visitors, a wonderful move being rewarded with an equally good finish. A quick passing move saw the ball flicked out to Phil O'Donnell by Henrik Larsson and when the cross came in Larsson launched a powerful header to send the ball into the top corner of the net in the 19th minute.

Gordon Marshall, playing against his former side, saved well from Simon Donnelly in the 36th minute, but four minutes later Kilmarnock were level. Paul Wright shot from a Pat Nevin cut-back and although Jonathan Gould did well to get down and push the ball away, Alex Burke followed up to score with an angled shot.

Celtic responded by creating several second-half chances. Marshall stood up well to deny O'Donnell six minutes after the restart and in the 55th minute they took the lead. The ball was played along the Kilmarnock penalty area where eventually Darren Jackson found Donnelly, who elected to chip the ball rather than go for power and the ball nestled in the back of the net. Two minutes later Marshall acrobatically pushed over a powerful Jackson shot but thereafter Celtic elected for, indeed were forced to adopt, a more defensive approach.

In the past they might have buckled under late pressure, but marshalled by Marc Rieper at the heart of their defence they stood firm. Jansen had elected to play Jackson in place of Harald Brattbakk and the Scotland international's back-tracking and defending helped to steady the ship.

Those battling qualities will be needed on Sunday because, while Celtic have the edge at the top of the league, Rangers appear to be hitting form at the right time.

There is no doubt the pleasure on the night was mixed with relief that Celtic had come through what was considered a difficult fixture and the pendulum in this crazy season is once again beginning to swing their way.

Kilmarnock (4-5-1): Marshall; MacPherson, Montgomerie, Lauchlan, Kerr; Nevin, Reilly, Henry (Roberts, 65), Holt, Burke (Mitchell, 65); Wright (Vareille, 65).

Celtic (3-5-2): Gould; Boyd, Annoni, Rieper; Donnelly, Burley, Lambert, Wieghorst, O'Donnell; Larsson, Jackson. Substitutes not used: Hannah, Brattbakk, McKinlay.

Referee: G Clyde (Bearsden).